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United States of America v. Dannie Jones

June 28, 2011


Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 1:08-cr-00118)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Garland, Circuit Judge:

Argued October 20, 2010

Before: TATEL, GARLAND, and KAVANAUGH, Circuit Judges.

Opinion for the Court filed by Circuit Judge GARLAND.

Dannie Jones pled guilty to conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute 100 grams or more of heroin. Although Jones faced a mandatory life sentence if he went to trial and lost, his plea agreement provided for a sentence of sixty months. Before he was sentenced, however, Jones moved to withdraw his guilty plea, maintaining that he had not understood that he was pleading guilty to conspiracy. The district court denied the motion and sentenced Jones to the agreed-upon term. On appeal, Jones contends that the district court abused its discretion both in denying his motion and in failing to order a competency hearing before doing so. We reject these contentions and affirm the judgment of the district court.


On October 23, 2008, a grand jury charged Jones and seven co-defendants with a variety of drug trafficking offenses. Jones was included in two counts of the 39-count indictment: Count One, which charged each defendant with conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute one kilogram or more of heroin, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846 and 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(A)(i); and Count 38, which charged Jones with distributing heroin on a specific date (February 15, 2008), in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(C). If convicted, Jones faced a mandatory statutory sentence of life in prison in light of his prior drug trafficking convictions. Initial Sentencing Hr'g Tr. 6-7 (Mar. 18, 2009).

The government's theory was that Jones was a street-level dealer in a drug operation run by Rex Pelote and Edward Farley, who conspired with Jones and numerous others to distribute heroin in the area of Langston Terrace in the District of Columbia. According to the government's proffers to the district court: Pelote would purchase the heroin wholesale; a co-conspirator named Shannon would divide it into $10 ziplock bags; Pelote, Shannon, and Farley would allocate it to street dealers; the street dealers, including Jones, would distribute it; and Shannon would then collect the proceeds from the dealers for delivery to Pelote. See Plea Hr'g Tr. 14, 33-34, 61-62 (Jan. 6, 2009). As part of the government's investigation: an undercover officer bought heroin from Jones in Langston Terrace on February 15, 2008; officers videotaped Jones conducting other drug transactions in the area with several of the co-conspirators; government wiretaps intercepted telephone conversations in which Farley discussed how many ziplocks to give Jones and how much Jones still owed for prior sales; additional wiretaps captured Jones calling Farley to advise him that customers were out seeking drugs; and still other wiretaps captured Jones warning Farley that police were in the area. See id. at 61-62; Initial Sentencing Hr'g Tr. 8-10 (Mar. 18, 2009); Status Hr'g Tr. 5-6 (Aug. 10, 2009).

On January 6, 2009, the day the trial was set to begin, Jones and two co-defendants entered guilty pleas. Jones, represented by appointed counsel, pled guilty to a lesser-included offense of Count One of the indictment -- conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute 100 grams or more of heroin, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846 and 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(B)(i) -- with an agreed-upon sentence of sixty months' imprisonment under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C).*fn1 Prior to entering the plea, Jones had signed the government's factual proffer, acknowledging that it was true. App. 32-36. Referring to the proffer, the court confirmed with Jones that: he "worked with Rex Pelote and Edward Farley and others to sell heroin in Langston Terrace"; he was "doing hand-to-hand heroin sales on the street"; although he was "getting the heroin that [he was] selling from someone named Shannon, [he] knew that Shannon was getting it from Rex Pelote"; and, he "would get the money from the sales[,] would give the money back to Shannon, and . . . knew that Shannon would get the money back to Pelote." Plea Hr'g Tr. 33-34 (Jan. 6, 2009).

On March 18, 2009, at what was to have been his sentencing hearing, Jones moved to withdraw his plea. He told the judge that he had thought he "was taking a plea to possession of -- distributing heroin, not conspiracy." Initial Sentencing Hr'g Tr. 10 (Mar. 18, 2009). "What I have here is one sale," he said. "I admit to selling that, but it was less than 100 grams . . . less than . . . half a gram of heroin." Id. at 9-10 He did not, he said, want "to take a cop to 100 grams." Id. at 10. Jones' counsel advised the court that Jones had "refused to discuss the situation" the last three times counsel had gone to see him, and for that reason counsel had filed a motion to withdraw from the representation. Id. The court then granted counsel's motion, continued the defendant's sentencing, and subsequently appointed new counsel.

Jones' new counsel appeared with him for a status hearing on May 8, 2009. Counsel reported that Jones had refused to talk to her as well. In response to a question from the court regarding the status of the guilty plea, Jones again said that he "thought [he] was pleading guilty to my sales that they said I had made, not to no conspiracy, not to no 100 grams." Status Hr'g Tr. 2 (May 8, 2009). He told the court that he did not want his new attorney, and that he would seek to retain a lawyer or possibly represent himself. The court noted that Jones was refusing to cooperate with a psychologist the court had asked to screen him, and postponed the sentencing to allow Jones to obtain counsel.

The court held two more status hearings before conducting Jones' sentencing. At the first hearing, the court explained that Jones had requested another appointed counsel because he had been unable to retain one on his own. Jones told the court that he still wanted to withdraw his plea, and the court appointed a third lawyer for him. Status Hr'g Tr. 2-4 (Aug. 10, 2009). At the second and final status hearing, Jones' newly appointed counsel reported that Jones had refused to see him when he twice visited Jones at the jail. The court told Jones that it was not inclined to grant his motion to withdraw his guilty plea and that sentencing would proceed the next day. The court observed that there was "nothing incompetent" about Jones; he was just being "obstinate." Status Hr'g Tr. 7 (Nov. 23, 2009).

Jones' sentencing hearing took place on November 24, 2009. The court stated for the record that Jones was going to represent himself, but that the last attorney the court had appointed was present to serve as stand-by counsel if Jones chose to consult him.

The court first addressed the question of Jones' competency. It noted that Jones' second attorney had suggested that Jones was incompetent and had asked the court to order a psychological screening. The court had just received the report from the psychologist, who advised that Jones had refused to cooperate, telling her: "I won't take the exam. I know what I'm doing. I'll see the judge in court." Sentencing Hr'g Tr. 4 (Nov. 24, 2009). Although the psychologist recommended that Jones be sent to an inpatient facility for a competency examination, the judge declined, saying: "I've been observing you in ...

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